If you’ve ever experienced a blackout from alcohol, it may be easy to shrug it off as a normal part of drinking culture or feel that it’s not a big deal if it isn’t happening all the time. However, this risky behavior of binge drinking and heavy alcohol consumption can not only lead to dangerous situations, but also long-term health issues, regardless of how often it occurs.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that about 88,000 people die every year from alcohol-related causes, which include alcohol-impaired car crashes and chronic health problems like liver cancer.1 And excessive drinking is the cause of 10% of deaths among adults between 20 and 64 years old.1 In the U.S., binge drinking is the most common, costly, and deadly pattern of excessive alcohol use.2
With a better understanding of how binge drinking can have negative consequences in your life, it may help to prevent problematic patterns of alcohol use that could ultimately lead to dependency or addiction.
If you or a loved one is concerned about long-term memory problems, it may be time to reach out for professional help. Our admissions navigators are available to speak with you about treatment options 24/7. Call our hotline at 1-888-685-5770 or get a text to start your journey toward recovery today.
What Is the Definition of Binge Drinking?
Although there are definitions for what constitutes moderate, or low-risk drinking, many healthcare professionals might argue that there is actually no safe amount of alcohol consumption. However, when it comes to a “safe” level of drinking, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020 considers up to 1 standard drink per day for women and up to 2 per day for men.3Take Our Alcoholism Assessment
A person’s liver can process about one standard drink, or 0.6 ounces of pure alcohol an hour.4,5 This can typically be found in:
- 12 ounces of beer, or one bottle at 5% alcohol.
- 8 ounces of malt liquor at 7% alcohol.
- 5 ounces of wine at 12% alcohol.
- 1.5 ounces of hard liquor, or one shot, at 40% alcohol.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) classifies binge drinking as 4 or more alcoholic drinks for females or 5 or more alcoholic drinks for males within a two-hour time period.3 According to the CDC, binge drinking is a serious but preventable issue in the U.S., costing the nation $249 billion in 2010 and resulting in health care expenditures, losses in workplace productivity, and criminal justice costs among other expenses.2
Health Effects From Binge Drinking
Nationally, 1 in 6 adults binge drinks about 4 times a month and 17 billion total binge drinks annually.2 More than 90% of those adults report binge drinking in the past 30 days.2 Binge drinking is also associated with many health problems including:2
- Chronic diseases (e.g., stroke, heart disease, liver disease, certain cancers, high blood pressure).
- Sexually transmitted diseases.
- Memory and learning issues.
- Unintended pregnancy and poor pregnancy outcomes (e.g., miscarriage, stillbirth, sudden infant death syndrome, fetal alcohol spectrum disorders).
- Alcohol use disorder (AUD).
Binge drinking increases the risk of alcohol poisoning, which can cause death. Obvious signs of alcohol poisoning include severe mental confusion, slow or irregular breathing, bluish tinge to the skin, low body temperature, vomiting, seizures, and cold or clammy skin.12 If you suspect a person is suffering from alcohol poisoning, call 911 immediately.
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What Is a Blackout?
A blackout is a general term for a loss of memory; and the most common cause is a rapid increase in blood alcohol content (BAC) levels. This is sometimes called alcohol-induced amnesia. When a blackout occurs, a person has problems forming new long-term memories while maintaining other skills such as talking.8 They are consequences of a rapid increase in BAC, most often caused by binge drinking.6 However, the effect of alcohol on memory can vary among different people, including the BAC level that will cause a blackout or “grayout” and some people never experience blackouts.7
Usually, a person’s BAC must reach at least 0.16%, twice the legal limit, to induce a blackout.7 Yet, alcohol can cause memory loss after only a few drinks and the more a person drinks, the more the impairment increases.13
How Do Blackouts Occur?
When sober, memories are formed after sensory input is processed in short-term memory through a process called transfer encoding, then moved through a similar process into long-term memory.6 When a person remembers something, their brain retrieves the memory from long-term storage and puts it into short-term memory while the individual re-experiences the event. Research has shown that alcohol interferes with transfer encoding and retrieval between short-term and long-term memory storage, disrupting a person’s episodic memory.6
Types of Blackouts
There are two forms of alcohol-caused blackouts: complete and partial, or fragmentary (also called a “grayout”).8 En block (complete) involves total memory loss that cannot be recalled under any circumstances.8 Partial (fragmentary) is more common and means that you may not immediately remember what happened, but certain cues can trigger memories to return.8
There is also a difference between blacking out and passing out. When a person passes out, they lose consciousness in a state similar to being asleep, although they are not likely to respond to stimuli like being spoken to or touched. When a person blacks out, they may continue to make decisions, hold conversations, and even continue to drink.7 They appear to be conscious, but they will not remember what happened. This is extremely dangerous, as they may attempt to drive, have unprotected sex, or perform other risky behaviors that can lead to permanent harm or even death.
Who Is at the Most Risk from Alcohol Blackouts?
Women are at greater risk of blacking out than men, and young adults are at greater risk of blacking out compared to older adults.6 Differences in hormones, body composition, and physical size, which affect alcohol distribution and metabolism among genders, is likely the reason why women are more prone to blacking out. Blackouts can occur at much lower BACs in people who drink and take sleep and anti-anxiety medications.7
Typically, adolescents and young adults are more likely to binge drink, and when they do, they are more likely to drink more alcohol per binge.7 According to SAMHSA’s 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, among 12- to 20-year-olds, an estimated 4.5 million binge drank at least once in the past month and 0.9 million binge drank on 5 or more days over the past month.9
One survey also found that 50% of college students who have had alcohol reported blacking out at some point and 40% reported experiencing a blackout a year prior.11 This is very risky and puts young people at serious risk of experiencing legal, financial, academic, and personal consequences, such as illness, mood disorders, sexual assault, physical violence, and hospitalization.
Are Binge Drinking and Blacking Out Signs of Addiction?
While binge drinking is not the same as alcohol use disorder, frequently drinking too much increases the risk of developing an alcohol dependence which can lead to addiction. Previously, alcohol-induced blackouts were an essential early warning sign of problematic drinking and among the top three indicators of alcoholism.8
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It is now understood that while blackouts are not a direct sign of addiction, they can be a strong indicator of a person in the early phases of alcohol addiction.8 For adults, more than 3 drinks a day (or more than 7 in a week) for women and more than 4 drinks a day (or more than 14 in a week) for men is considered heavy or at-risk drinking.10
If you or a loved one are struggling with binge drinking and/or blacking out, American Addiction Centers (AAC) can work with you to begin your path toward sobriety. Alcohol.org is a subsidiary of AAC which provides a network of addiction treatment facilities across the nation for individuals seeking recovery from alcoholism. AAC offers a combination of proven therapies and services to meet your individual needs.
. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2020). Alcohol Facts and Statistics.
. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2019). Binge Drinking.
. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (n.d.). Drinking Levels Defined.
. MedlinePlus. (2018). Blood Alcohol Level.
. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2018). Fact Sheets – Alcohol Use and Your Health.
. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2003). What Happened? Alcohol, Memory Blackouts, and the Brain. Alcohol Research & Health, 27(2): 186-96.
. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2019). Interrupted Memories: Alcohol-Induced Blackouts.
. Lee, H., Roh, S., & Kim, D. J. (2009). Alcohol-induced blackout. International journal of environmental research and public health, 6(11), 2783–2792.
. Jonaki Bose, Sarra L. Hedden, Rachel N. Lipari, Eunice Park-Lee. Substance Abuse & Mental Health Administration. (2018). Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States: Results from the 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (n.d.). What are the different drinking levels?
. U.S. National Library. (2002). Prevalence and correlates of alcohol-induced blackouts among college students: results of an e-mail survey.
. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2020). Understanding the Dangers of Alcohol Overdose.
. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2004). Alcohol’s Damaging Effects on the Brain.